Friday, June 27, 2014

Classics Revisted: Pinocchio (1940)

Pinocchio (1940)
Directed by: Hamilton Luske & Ben Sharpsteen.
Written by: Ted Sears & Otto Englander & Webb Smith & William Cottrell & Joseph Sabo & Erdman Penner & Aurelius Battaglia & Bill Peet based on the story by Carlo Collodi.
Starring: Dickie Jones (Pinocchio / Alexander), Cliff Edwards (Jiminy Cricket), Christian Rub (Geppetto), Evelyn Venable (The Blue Fairy), Mel Blanc (Donkeys / Gideon (hiccup) / Marionette Soldiers), Walter Catlett (J. Worthington Foulfellow), Frankie Darro (Lampwick), Charles Judels (Stromboli / The Coachman), Clarence Nash (Figaro / Roughhouse Statue / Donkeys).

In April 2014 on a survey of people in animation, Pinocchio ranked as the greatest animated film of all time. This somewhat surprised me – but when you look at the rest of the top 5, it comes a little easier to see how Pinocchio did it. While Disney had more films in the Top 100 than any other studio, only Dumbo and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made the top 10 aside from Pinocchio. The second and third ranked films were Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro by Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, while fourth and fifth were Pixar’s Toy Story and The Incredibles. It seems to me that Miyazaki and Pixar devotees were split on their favorite – where Disney fans rallied around Pinocchio – and with good reason. I’ve always thought it was the best animated film Disney has ever made – and watching it again for the first time in a few years confirmed that for me. What it also confirmed for me is that a film like this would probably not be made today – it would be “too dark, too scary, too intense” for children – and would have its edged sanded off. But it’s that darkness that for me makes the film as great as it is.

The story is well known to everyone. Gepetto is a lonely woodcarver, who creates the marionette puppet Pinocchio, who is brought to life by the Blue Fairy. He’s still a puppet, but the Blue Fairy tells him that if he proves himself worthy, he can become a real boy. A jolly cricket named Jiminy is assigned to be his conscience – although Pinocchio will ignore him again and again on his journey. He’ll be lured away by Honest John the Fox and Gideon the Cat, who sell him to a ruthless puppeteer named Stromboli. The Blue Fairy will come to his rescue however – but when she asks how Pinocchio ended up with Stromboli Pinocchio lies – causing his nose to grow and grow and grow. Once he gets released, he will again be lured away by Honest John and Gideon, who sell him to an evil coachman, who collects “naughty young boys” and takes them to Pleasure Island – for what purpose we don’t know at first. Then of course there is the climax involving Monstro the Whale.

The sequence on Pleasure Island is one of the most disturbing ever in a children’s film. The Coachman is a large, sweaty man – he looks almost like a cartoon version of the stereotypical child molester – and he is appropriately creepy. Once the real purpose of Pleasure Island is revealed – that by indulging themselves with alcohol, cigars and vulgarity, the boys are literally turned into jackasses, who the Coachmen then sells, things get even darker. If there is a more heartbreaking moment in movie than young Alexander crying out for his mother, I don’t know what it is. If there is a scarier moment in animation than when his friend Lampick laughs at him, and reveals a donkey’s heehaw, again, I don’t know what it is. Even more disturbing of course is that while Pinocchio gets away, the rest of the boys do not. They’re stuck as jackasses forever. The other famous sequences – the nose growing and the chase with Monstro the Whale are scary and intense in their own, more traditional sense – but it’s the sequence on Pleasure Island that haunts me. You would never get away with a sequence like that in an animated movie aimed at children now – but that’s precisely what makes it so memorable. Once you see it, you’re not going to forget it.

It’s hard to believe that Pinocchio was only the second animated feature by Disney – following 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The animators were still inventing ways of telling a feature length story in animation – in camera movement, in suggestion of off screen action, of the different types of creatures created for the movie – which moves away from the human characters of Snow White into a broader world here. Yet here, Disney and company pretty much perfected the animated film – making a film that is runs the gamut of emotions from exuberance to terror, and everything in between. There are moments in the film of pure joy, some wonderful songs and beloved characters – like Jiminy Cricket. And there are moments that still scared me all these years and multiple viewing later. I’m not sure Pinocchio would be get my vote as the greatest animated film ever made – but it would certainly be on the shortlist of the top 3 or 4. It is a masterpiece.

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